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krisek Berat - A travel report by Krys
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Berat,  Albania - flag Albania -  Berat
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krisek's travel reports

Stone based, white & brown facades. Berat.

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Albania's oldest town is charming. Its medieval old districts boast hundreds of white little houses with rustic light brown tiled roofs and dark brown windows. Built on a slope of vast castle hill right by a rapid stream, the Osum river. And there's more!


Old part of Berat with the hill, on which the citadel stands.
Old part of Berat with the hill, on which the citadel stands.
The legend of Berat has it that two brothers, Tomor and Shpirag, fell in love with the same girl. Their feelings were so strong for her that they fought over the girl. Tomor, the elder one, fought with a brilliant sword, the Shpirag with a strong cudgel. God observing everything got very sad and angry with the situation and decided to punish the brothers, changing them to large stones of the size of mountains. The mountains still stand, the Shpirag with scars from the sword, and the Tomor with big gaps made by the cudgel. The girl did not escape God's anger and she was changed to a rocky hill, where Berat has been built over the many years. She loved both brothers, but not their fighting. To this days she cries and cries with streams of tears, which build up to size of the river called Osum.

There were three parts of Berat. First, the least interesting, was the new town. The old part featuring white houses with dark brown windows, right by the river. And the third was on the top of the hill, complete with ruins of the citadel and an Ottoman district.

The most interesting bit of the town was compact, five to ten minutes walking distance in every direction, except the hilltop, which could be a treacherous, slippery and hot climb on a cobble stones taking up to fifteen minutes.

The Osum River, splitting the two older parts of Berat - northern and southern, each of which had its own name, was a rapid one. The southern, smaller bit was less interesting, but had a fabulous restaurant (see below). The new town, with ATMs, banks and the main residential areas was on the northern bank, and to the east. The coach and furgon station was on the border of the old and new districts, also on the northern bank.

I arrived in the afternoon, just in time to contemplate the long shadows of the forthcoming evening placing themselves on the facades of the old Berat. Just chilling over a cold beer by the river. In the morning, I climbed the hilltop and was surprised to see so much there.

Favourite spots:
Ruins of the massive citadel on the top of the Berat's hill.
Ruins of the massive citadel on the top of the Berat's hill.
Berat's spot that appealed most to me was the little white, pedestrians-only suspension bridge, which overlooked the both the old town with the castle above and the new town in the north-east. The bridge was perfect to take pictures in the afternoon when the sun would illuminate the south-facing old town in an interesting angle. Then, on a sunny morning, the sun was illuminating the old town facades from the opposite angle, and those houses, which were slightly turned south-east nearly glew. Fantastic does not begin to describe the quality of the spot, even if from a photographer's point of view.

I also loved the citadel on the hill. It was so much to see there, that I was pleasantly surprised. The humongous cistern was definitely a highlight there. The ramparts and towers offered magnificent views of the area below and the village within the citadel. I almost skipped this part of the town, as it was very tricky to manage the slippery path, and I could not afford to break any bones.

What's really great:
Old part of Berat within the ruins of the citadel.
Old part of Berat within the ruins of the citadel.
The great thing about Berat was that the town adopted an 's' shape pedestrian crossing. No, just joking! But there was at least one of them right in the heart of the town!

What was really great about the town was cleanliness. Berat was spotless. At night, an army of people swept the streets. In the morning, home owners swept the streets and alleys next to their households. That was in the old town and in the centre. Only in Riga did I witness such a detailed attention to street sweeping.

I should also mention that walking around the citadel, which I thought was free (well, if you come before 9am you should also have it for free), with no strings attached was superb. There were no barriers anywhere and one really had to be careful not to fall off the ramparts or into the gargantuan cistern, still holding water. If one fell down there, there was no way out, impossible to climb back up, the walls were at least 7 meters high above the water line and the water was still about 5 meters deep.

Sights:
St Michael's Church perched on a cliff overlooking the river.
St Michael's Church perched on a cliff overlooking the river.
The imposing remains of the 10ha citadel above Berat's Mangalemi historic district was the main sight. Or group of sights. There were several Greek Orthodox churches within, reportedly one per each of the families living on the top of the hill. There were two ruined mosques, built by the Ottomans, a large Acropol with remains of the shops, and a cluster of traditional houses dating back to 1800s. But the most dramatic of the sights was the gargantuan cistern. It was humongous and very deep. It had arched ceiling and a few supporting columns like a giant cathedral. It was disused, but water there still gathered.

The citadel's walls offered panoramic views of the surroundings, and some of the ramparts were fabulous sights in their own rights. The castle had a little musem.

St Michael's Church (13th century) in the cliff was an interesting little sight as well. It seemed as if it was glued to the side of the mountain, and an interesting ruin of a harem, right in the middle of the town.

Accommodations:
Patio of the Mangalemi (Tomi) Hotel at night, just after the rain.
Patio of the Mangalemi (Tomi) Hotel at night, just after the rain.
I made a note of Hotel Mangalemi before I left London, so this was the first accommodation option in Berat that I checked. I loved it. So, it turned out to be also the last option I investigated. There were other hotels, for example the Palma Hotel, which might have offered a magnificent view of the old town, but the Mangalemi was conveniently located close to everything and it was set in a Berat traditional house. Or an entire set of houses. The complex dated back to 1775, built by Ahmet Karl Pacha, a local nobleman. The Mio family, who own it now (June 2010) converted it into the hotel in 1993. It was the first privately owned hotel after the collapse of the regime in Albania in 1991.

I got a triple room for single use (room #3 - €25). It had a tiled floor, a small balcony overlooking the patio, air-con, TV set, wardrobe. Bathroom was modern. Basic toiletries were provided. Beds were a little soft but linen was crisp and spotless.

There was free wifi in the lobby, bar and restaurant.

Nightlife:
One of the pubs hidden in the arched cellars in the old town.
One of the pubs hidden in the arched cellars in the old town.
Sadly and mysteriously in the same measure, Berat was not big at nightlife. Most, if not all, bars and pubs closed by 10 p.m. It was s pity, because there were a couple of fantastic bars in Berat. One, based in an old warehouse with splendid arched ceilings, had a very good selection if spirits and young bartender, who was getting somewhat frustrated with even younger clientele wanting to use Internet on the bar's computer.

Hotel Palma had a club called Palma Club, but it was empty on the night I was in Berat. The same was about the King Club in the centre, in a little alley off the main road leading to the old mosque, the cathedral and the bus terminal between them.

Hangouts:
The Palma Bar overlooking one of the old mosques.
The Palma Bar overlooking one of the old mosques.
I liked sitting at the Palma Bar. It was located under a hotel under the same name. It overlooked the old town sloping down the hill, an old mosque, and the castle's southern tower. Or what it was left of it. They had comfortable faux-leather armchairs set around six small wooden coffee tables right by the town's main road. The terrace was sheltered from elements, which were unpredictable when I visited. Their pint-sized bottle of Tirana lager was 200 leke (£1.23). It was great to sit there and watch the world go by, and chat with the locals, who sometimes sat in the armchairs to sip drinks. There was free wifi internet access there as well.

The considerably cheaper Bar Dardha, right opposite the Palma Bar, was favoured by the local crowd. Or, to be exact, by the fiftysomething men. It too overlooked the old town, had tables in the pavement, etc. But their plastic armchair were way less comfy.

There was also bar Republika with a ground floor terrace at the pedestrianised avenue.

Restaurants:
Spaghetti carbonara at the Antigoni overlooking old Berat illuminated at night.
Spaghetti carbonara at the Antigoni overlooking old Berat illuminated at night.
The fabulously located restaurant Antigoni, just by the northern bank of the river with incredible views of the old town, particularly spectacular at night, had a long menu of pizzas, pastas, salads and meat dishes all ranging from 250 to 400 leke. Young waiting staff did not speak much English and the menu was only in Albanian, but Travellers with basic language skills and familiarity with Italian cuisine would figure our most of the dishes. Some waiters spoke Italuan, actually. They had a fairly long list of deserts and cocktails.

I had a bowl of spaghetti carbonara (300 leke) and washed it down with a small bottle of Korça lager (120). I was hoping to try Korça stout but it was sadly sold out!

These people were also serious about the restrooms. Carefully scrubbed to the max, proper soap dispensers and paper towels! Very nice indeed!! My only complaint about Antigoni would be the very slow service.

Other recommendations:
Little odeon at Apollonia archaeological site near Fier, 1.5h from Berat.
Little odeon at Apollonia archaeological site near Fier, 1.5h from Berat.
Berat had regular every 30 minutes connection to Tirana by coach. There were few direct coaches to Serande or Gjirokaster, and one had to take one of the many furgons (minibuses) to Fier and change there for more frequent services. Tickets were acquired inside the vehicles.

It was possible to do a side trip to the ruins of an ancient Greek site of Apollonia, which was located 10 kilometres from Fier. Apollonia had little to offer, that it would have seemed though. The most striking, and I use this word rather loosely, sight was a small odeon, dating back to the 3rd century BC. This musical theatre (that's what an odeon was in ancient Greece) was heavily restored. However, the area was of a great natural beauty and boasted dozens of the infamous bunkers. From Fier one would have to take a taxi (€15 including one hour waiting time) as there was no public transport to the site.

Published on Tuesday June 29th, 2010


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Tue, Jul 13 2010 - 11:03 PM rating by rangutan

Great place and very postive report on Albania for a change :-)

Tue, Jun 29 2010 - 06:45 PM rating by pesu

I really enjoy to read about places I never heard of before, thank you for this interesting report and the pics, Krys! Will there be one of the cistern?

Tue, Jun 29 2010 - 03:45 PM rating by porto

Sounds great Krys, another interesting and enjoyable report. On my travels so far the best street clean that I have seen was in Bergen.

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